Jewish Jihadists: How to Combat Violent Extremism in Israel

Our most pressing challenge is to articulate an alternative to radicalism, a moderate but authentic Orthodox Judaism that rejects xenophobia and violence.

A group of settlers protesting against the demolition of a synagogue in the settlement of Givat Ze'ev, November 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

Much has been written about the causes of violent Jewish extremism in Israel, including that its goal is to bring down the state in an apocalyptic civil war in order to impose the extremists’ vision of a Messianic Kingdom upon the rest of us. Even established figures on the religious right have acknowledged this. The question is how to combat it.

One approach could be to address Jewish extremism in the same way that Western countries have begun responding to the growing threat of Islamic extremism among their Muslim populations. In a speech describing how to tackle Islamic fundamentalism, British Prime Minister David Cameron laid out what was to my mind one of the best approaches there is. (I say this even though I have reservations about his government's implementation of the strategy.)

In the United Kingdom, evidence suggests a relatively large number of Britain Muslims are sympathetic to jihadi causes, but wouldn’t engage in an act of terror. Cameron’s approach seeks to distinguish between people who are already committed to acts of terror and their non-violent sympathisers, and responds to each group separately.

The same can be done in Israel. Here, we have three distinct populations. First, there are the violent Jewish extremists. On the other end of the spectrum are the liberal secular public as well as those religious Jews for whom the violence and the hatred that underpin it are utterly repulsive. Somewhere in the middle are the non-violent, yet potentially violent, Orthodox Jews.

The violent Jewish extremists are beyond the pale; they cannot realistically be redeemed. As such, the full power of the law and security forces must be employed to neutralize the threat they pose. They must be arrested and their networks broken up.

What about their non-violent – but potentially violent – sympathisers? Clearly, they cannot be arrested; they’re not breaking any laws (yet). It is their ideology that must be challenged. This was one of Cameron’s key insights.

Friends of mine send their child to a mainstream, state-funded, religious school in Israel. The school is a well-known institution in Jerusalem’s Modern Orthodox community. In passing, one of the teachers told his class that there is no such thing as a “moral Christian,” for Christianity is idolatry and idol worshippers can’t be moral. My friends were furious – and rightly so. They remonstrated with the teacher, highlighting that many well-known religious authorities throughout the ages have denied that Christianity is idolatry. (Even if it were idolatry, that wouldn’t automatically entail that a Christian person is irredeemably immoral). “What about the Christian family who saved my father in the Holocaust?” my friend charged, “Were they immoral? Have you ever even met a Christian?”

Letting this sort of xenophobia fester in our mainstream religious schools creates a conveyor belt that could lead a person from the non-violent majority right into the violent minority.

One might argue that Judaism itself is xenophobic. Modern humanist forms of Judaism are, one might think, an anachronistic and apologetic reformulation of a religion that at root is about racial supremacy and the desire to rule exclusively over our homeland. In a powerful piece of journalism, Anshel Pfeffer addresses this belief, saying racist extremists adhere to a “true” Judaism. But, he notes, Judaism “deliberately lost its authenticity and assimilated and adapted and evolved. The problematic bits of the Torah were explained away and put under a heavy pile of caveats precisely because they were inadequate and inappropriate for the changing times.”

While I agree with Pfeffer that Judaism has always been evolving, I disagree that there is a “true” Judaism that preceded these evolutions. Maimonides recognized that the Pentateuch itself, even if – as he believed – it was dictated to Moses by God, may have included various details only in order to speak to the people of those times, in their cultural situation (Guide to the Perplexed III.46). The Talmud, before Maimonides, seems to contain a similar theory: Judaism, even according to Judaism itself, has always been in conversation with the cultural and human context outside of it (Tractate Kiddushin 21b). It is a myth to think that the Judaism of the extremist is any purer than the Judaism of the moderate.

The way to stop people who are on the cusp of religiously motivated violence isn’t to convince them that their religion is false – that’s not going to happen any time soon (and I, for one, believe that my religion is true). The way to stop them is to show them how their religion – which has always been evolving – can be understood authentically in yet another new light: one that doesn’t sanction xenophobia or violence.

Thus, the way to prevent non-violent sympathizers from joining the violent Jewish extremists is two-pronged. The state must stop supporting extremist teachers and preachers who could point this population into a negative trajectory. It must expel them from our publicly funded schools and the Chief Rabbinate. And Orthodox Jews, like myself, need to articulate moderate forms of religious Judaism; a Judaism that can speak to this population without radicalizing it. This was another insight that Cameron was eager to push, despite its sounding politically incorrect. The Muslims population itself has a responsibility to raise its voice against extremism, and to articulate an alternative. Orthodox Jews in Israel have exactly the same responsibility.

Finally, there is the secular Israeli public and moderate religious Jews. This population abhors the Jewish extremists. Following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, religious friends of mine were spat at in Tel Aviv merely for wearing a kippah, or a long skirt. Secular Israelis need to be careful. Just as Islamophobia radicalizes, the impulse to stigmatise Jewish religiosity spurs radicalization.

Addressing Britain’s Muslim population towards the end of his speech, Cameron said, “I know that for as long as injustice remains – be it with racism, discrimination or sickening Islamophobia - you may feel there is no place for you in Britain. But I want you to know: there is a place for you and I will do everything I can to support you.” The sentiment conveyed in these words has the potential to claw people back from the edge. Care must be taken, in the dogged fight against religious extremism, not to alienate law-abiding religious people; and, in turn, those law-abiding religious people have a responsibility to reject extremism and to articulate a cogent alternative.

Dr. Samuel Lebens, an Orthodox Rabbi, is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Rutgers University.